Competition Kicks Off to Build World War I National Memorial in DC

The trenches of World War I. (Defense Department photo)
The trenches of World War I. (Defense Department photo)

Nearly a century after the United States entered World War I, a competition now is under way to design a national memorial honoring those who served.

The memorial will be built on what currently is Pershing Park, where there is a bronze statue of Gen. John "Blackjack" Pershing, commander of American forces during the war. The memorial, expected to cost between $20 million and $25 million, would incorporate what already is a monument to the American Expeditionary Force, the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission announced on Thursday.

"We live under the long shadow of the First World War," Commission Chairman Robert Dalessandro said. "It was a war that redefined the maps of Europe and the world, particularly in the Middle East, and today we live under the social, economic and geopolitical terms set" by the U.S. and European victors at its close.

Notwithstanding the war's lasting effects, the people who served in it have largely been forgotten, and that is something the planned memorial also intends to correct through educating visitors, said Dalessandro, a retired Army colonel.

The plan is dedicate the memorial Nov. 11, 2018, marking the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day - now Veterans Day in the U.S. - when hostilities officially ceased.

Though chartered by Congress, the commission is to raise all the funds necessary through contributions in much the same way the Vietnam War Memorial came about in the early 1980s, said Edwin Fountain, vice chairman of the commission.

He said the commission will seek contributions from corporations and foundations, but also from the grassroots, among people who believe there should be a World War I memorial in the nation's capital.

Congress approved two locations for national memorials, he said. One, already built, is in Kansas City and includes a museum.

But Kansas City is not the U.S. capital, Fountain said, and not having a national memorial in Washington has always seemed like a slight.

Two-stage project

The first stage of the project - which began Thursday - includes distribution of the competition manual to prospective designers followed by submission of concept art for the memorial.

Design entries - basic sketches or drawings presenting the idea - must be submitted by July 21. The designs will be reviewed for compliance over the following three days and readied for a jury selection that will be held from July 28-30.

Each of those chosen to go into the next phase will be awarded $25,000 toward their plans, Fountain said.

Though the design competition is open to all, including amateur artists and designers, anyone moving into the second phase of the competitions must partner with a professional designer or architect who can ensure the design can be properly executed and all regulatory requirements met, he said.

The second stage will begin in August and include two mid-course reviews before designs are submitted on Dec. 2, according to the schedule.

After being reviewed for compliance there will be a public exhibition of the selected designs from Dec. 5-20. A jury will go over the final selections from Jan. 6-8, with the winning design announced on Jan. 20.

Fountain said he got involved in pushing for a World War I memorial about seven years ago "with his sense of symmetry being offended."

He saw memorials to World War II, Korea and Vietnam take their place on the Washington Mall, but no national monument for the First World War.

He pointed out that the combat mortality rate of World War I was probably 50 percent greater than in World War II. The 116,000-plus killed also totaled more than those killed in both Korea and Vietnam. And the 116,000 dead mostly died in just six months of fighting, he said.

World War I, he said, "does not exist in the American consciousness. It does not resonate in the American consciousness the way the later wars do."

"World War II is represented with this tremendous amount of newsreel footage, contemporary reporting, output from Hollywood, novels, television shows, culminating in the Band of Brothers series and Saving Private Ryan."

Even Korea, long considered a "forgotten" war, found its way into American living rooms and through the TV series "MASH," he said, while the Vietnam War was broadcast nightly on the news.

But those who fought in World War I were every bit as courageous as those who came after, he said, noting that when American troops were rushed to the Marne River against attacking German forces their positions were the only ones not breached by the enemy.

The war introduced the world to the condition "shell shock" - today known as post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

Controversy expected

Fountain said he expects there will be controversy over the designs submitted, just as there was when the Vietnam Memorial Wall was selected in 1981. Though the Wall today is widely admired, many - especially in the veteran community - hated the design when it was selected.

Some considered the memorial, with its black panels bearing the names of America's fallen troops, an insult.

Fountain expects there will be debate over any selection for a World War I memorial, "if for no other reason than there is a group of people out there who want all our memorials to look like the Lincoln Memorial.

"And there's another group that wants all of them to be designed by Frank Gehry," he said, referencing the Canadian-born architect famous for structures that are works of art as well as functional office buildings or homes.

"Those two groups are never going to come together," he told Military.com. "You're not going to please all the people all the time."

One advantage to establishing a World War I memorial a century later is that those with the strong emotional attachment - the men and women who served - have all died. The last World War I veteran, Frank Buckles of West Virginia, died in 2011.

"We don't have any living veterans of World War I," Fountain said. "We have engaged with Sandra Pershing, who was married to [General] Pershing's grandson … We have brought her into this, solicited her views. We certainly don't want the Pershing family objecting to the memorial design."

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@militay.com.

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